Prof. Calestous Juma on why the 4th Industrial revolution is a mischaracterization

The future of the human society will be a future defined by intricately connected sensors and actuators. At least, this is what the ongoing global conversation on the 4th Industrial revolution suggests. Should it stand the test of time and not another ‘buzz-phrase’, then the sooner we understood and prepared, the better.

The subject of the fourth industrial revolution is quite intriguing. The picture it paints of how we are evolving in today’s world and what the future will look like is deeply fascinating. Some have referred to it as smart factory, the Internet of Things, industry 4.0 or the 4th industrial revolution as championed by Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman, World Economic Forum.

Historically, the world has seen three different industrial revolutions. From the first Revolution of 1784 which used water and steam power to mechanize production to the second (1870) which used electric power to create mass production and the third, (1969) described as the digital revolution which used electronics and information technology to automate production. Arguments have risen in several quarters about terminology and whether or not there exists a fourth industrial revolution. While some argue for the existence of a fourth, others claim it is only an elongation of the 3rd industrial revolution, hence the term digital 2.0.

I recently had a conversation on the subject of  the 4th industrial revolution with Harvard Kennedy School Professor Calestous Juma who is an internationally recognized authority in the application of science and technology to sustainable development.

Perez: There seems to be a valid argument for the 4th industrial revolution but you’ve dispelled it as a myth, why so?

Calestous:  There is a systemwide transformation affecting all aspects of economic life. Much of this is driven by the convergence of a wide range of sectors and fields with information technology serving as one of the underlying platforms. To call it “industrial” is to understate its reach and misrepresent its character. Calling it “industrial” has huge policy implications because it makes it look sectoral whereas it is systemwide. Those who view it as sectoral are unlikely to reap its full benefits. The reference to a fourth industrial revolution also carries a linear view. The transformation that is occurring is qualitatively different and cannot be characterized as a next step from what occurred in the past. This means that we can’t rely on the past to visualize the future.

Clarification: To be fair, I will call the term “fourth industrial revolution” a mischaracterization rather than a myth. I don’t want to make it look like nothing is happening.

Calling it “industrial” has huge policy implications because it makes it look sectoral whereas it is systemwide.

PerezBased on your article “On the edge of a second digital revolution” would you rather prefer we stick to “2nd digital revolution” instead of ” 4th industrial revolution”?

Calestous: I am not calling it a digital revolution. I am saying there is a convergence of diverse technological platforms such as informatics, genomics and new materials that are serving as the motherboard for the new economic transformation. Last century was driven largely by the convergence of engineering and physics.

Today the life sciences are a fundamental addition to the convergence. In addition, the deepening of research to the nano level is also yielding new products and services arising from discoveries of new natural phenomena. To reduce all this to the term “industrial” is cling to past worldviews that don’t reflect reality.

The digital revolution is only a subset of wider economic transformation. My IoT article was limited to that so it would be a mistake to juxtapose digital with industrial. Terms or names have policy consequences so we should be careful about the choice of words. The reason the terms matter is that calling it industrial makes it look like it is only a matter for the ministry of industry whereas it has implications for all sectors. The same applies to calling it digital. It will be reduced to a department in the information and telecommunications ministry. In both cases there will be little high level political support as the issues get defined as sectoral and technical. Who, for example, would have thought of drones being relevant for African agriculture. Agricultural drones rely on a convergence of diverse technologies operating on a digital platform.

Perez: Where is Africa in all of this?

Calestous: Africa needed to reposition its approach and focus on possibilities and opportunities for technological leapfrogging. This process started in 2014 with the AU adoption of the Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa, 2024. It stresses infrastructure development as a foundation for innovation, reforms in higher education, a focus on technology-based enterprise development, and regional trade. It is an opportunity for Africa to chart its own path by focusing on its immediate challenges such as agriculture, health and environment. Little will happen without high level champions of innovation, especially presidents and prime ministers. This closes the loop and underscores why the task is not sectoral.